By Ellen Ficklen
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
For Don Harris, the day in 1965 when he stepped off a ship in Valencia, Spain, remains vivid: "I said, 'I'm home.' "
His reaction was instantaneous, and the sentiment grew. In the 18 days that he spent in ports around the country as a U.S. Navy chaplain, he came to love "the way the Spanish cherish children and operate at a family level," the way life revolves around mealtime socializing. And when he took his own wife and sons there for a three-year stay in the mid-1970s, they became smitten with not just the country and its people but also the food: saffron-scented paella, shrimp sizzling in garlic sauce, paper-thin slices of intensely flavored ham.
The Harrises had traveled the world -- Don in the Navy and his wife, Ruth, as the daughter of a medical missionary -- but once they returned to the United States from the Navy base in Rota, it was Spain they couldn't forget. It was Spain to which they returned for so many vacations over the years. And it was Spain that more than 30 years later inspired a post-retirement business. With Ruth, who had been a music librarian at the College of William and Mary, Don founded the mail-order company La Tienda here in the home of Colonial Williamsburg, with the goal of supplying homesick Spaniards with a taste of home. But the business satisfied their own yearning for authentic Spanish specialty foods and products, too.
Now 10 years old, La Tienda ("the store" in Spanish) carries more than 650 items -- mostly foods, plus some kitchen and table items -- and counts more than 50,000 customers. As Americans' taste for all things Spanish has grown, La Tienda has become a prime source. Through its Web site ( http://www.latienda.com/) and two-year-old store (usually open only on weekdays), Don Harris says, the company sells more Spanish products than any other in the United States. After doubling in size for years, it is growing by about 25 percent annually, without advertising. "It's all been word of mouth," Harris says, smiling.
Today, he estimates, Spaniards living outside Spain make up 25 percent of La Tienda's customers. Another 25 percent are Spain enthusiasts ("people who traveled to Spain and loved the food there"), and 50 percent are just plain North American foodies. The company ships to all 50 states and Canada, and to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A frequent order is for smoked paprika (pimenton de la Vera). Until the spice became trendy enough to make it to the shelves of specialty stores recently, one of the few places cooks could find it was La Tienda. On the Web site, viewers discover a choice of sweet, bittersweet or hot smoked paprika, an explanation of how the Spanish peppers are smoked over "smoldering oak logs . . . [and] stone-ground into a velvety powder . . . not far from where Columbus presented the first plants to Ferdinand and Isabela," as well as a variety of recipes featuring all three types. One is for classic paella; paella kits (which include the proper pan and ingredients) are also among the company's best-selling items.
This information-rich Web site is one of La Tienda's hallmarks, providing a free tutorial on Spanish life, culture and food. It includes about 200 recipes, many provided by noted Spanish-cookbook author Penelope Casas, plus the feature "Ask Penelope," in which site visitors can pose cooking questions.
Casas, who lives in New York, says many of those questions "come from people with Spanish roots who are trying to find an ancestral recipe, maybe something a grandmother made. I can usually come pretty close." The Harrises contacted her shortly after they founded La Tienda, she says, and "they have become good friends. We have mutual admiration at this point."
Over the years, Casas says, she has occasionally suggested new foods or suppliers ("whenever I find an extraordinary olive oil, I tell them about it"), and she encouraged the Harrises to stock some items traditionally found in Spanish kitchens, such as a yellow ceramic mortar and pestle that La Tienda now carries. She also buys from them, particularly items such as sausages that she can't bring into the United States (La Tienda has some made here following Spanish recipes).
The business also counts restaurants among its clients. Terri Cutrino, executive chef of the area's Jaleo restaurants, praises the lomo de bacalao that he buys from La Tienda, calling it "the best-quality salt cod in the world." Jaleo also buys morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo and Marcona almonds from the Harrises, who he says deserve credit for introducing Iberian flavors to U.S. palates. "The people at La Tienda have done a lot to open the American market to Spanish products," Cutrino says.
The Harrises make a point of using small suppliers and getting to know their producers. To that end, they recently found a young Spanish couple in the tiny town of Malpica de Tajo in the province of Toledo who have begun painstakingly producing foods in small batches using traditional Spanish recipes. La Tienda carries their La Cuna brand products, which include fruit preserves, roasted whole garlic and tomate frito, a thickened sauce of tomatoes that are fried in olive oil, then slow-cooked over low heat for hours.
The Harrises are also working to show customers that Smithfield isn't the only reason Virginia is for hams. La Tienda already sells pork sausages and the prosciutto-like jamon serrano. But the Harrises have also been key players in managing to get the holy grail of Spanish hams, jamon Iberico, imported to the United States. A remarkable dry-cured ham produced from black-hoofed Iberian pigs, it literally melts on the tongue.
Jamon Iberico "bellota," which La Tienda also will be importing, can be thought of as the holy grail with a halo. It comes from Iberian pigs that toward the end of their free-range lives eat up to 20 pounds of acorns (bellotas) a day. Noting the premise that calm pigs have the best meat, Harris describes how, on their last day, these pigs "have Mozart played to them and are given hot showers," then are gently euthanized ("sacrificed" is the Spaniards' term) with carbon monoxide. The result is a ham so flavorful (and with plenty of monounsaturated fat) that devotees occasionally risk hefty fines to smuggle it into the United States and even fly to Spain just to eat it.
Until now, the problem with importing either type of jamon Iberico was that because the ham is a limited-supply, pricey product that is wildly popular in its home country, Spanish producers didn't bother about USDA approval. They didn't need the U.S. market, but the U.S. market wanted jamon Iberico.
In bringing this ethereal ham legally into this country (a goal of La Tienda since its founding), Don Harris found it a plus to be a North American familiar with the way things are done in the United States and also fluent in Spanish. The result: A family company in western Spain reconfigured and expanded its facility and put in place beginning-to-end tracking procedures. It now has a USDA-inspected and -approved facility where jamon Iberico and jamon Iberico bellota have started their long curing processes.
The company's Iberico sausages and lomos (pork loins) already are available through La Tienda, and paletas (shoulder hams) should be available by Christmas. Full-size boneless and bone-in hams will be offered at some point in 2008; some will be bellota. La Tienda is taking deposits of $199 for the hams, which, as you might imagine, aren't cheap. A boneless bellota will cost $139 a pound and, on average, weigh about 8.5 pounds.
Helping tally those orders and provide other support are all three of the couple's sons (including Christopher, who was born in Spain) and two daughters-in-law.
Harris says he considers the packing staff, largely from El Salvador, to be family, too, and he gives them health coverage and English lessons. "We want to help them integrate," he says. "We want all of us to be living lives of stability and trust."
Spoken not only like a retired minister but also, perhaps, in this emphasis on food and family, like a Spaniard.